In the month of October, we are addressing a few myths of homelessness and giving helpful information to combat these myths. Our goal is that after reading this post, you won’t find yourself #FallingForHomelessnessMyths again!
Myth #1: All Homeless Are Panhandlers
You’ve probably encountered someone you thought to be homeless. Maybe it’s because they were holding up a cardboard sign asking for help, or perhaps they approached you directly and asked you for money.
These types of encounters can be uncomfortable for a lot of people. On the one hand, helping someone in need seems like a kind thing to do. But the urge to help someone in this type of situation may be accompanied by a nagging thought that they might use the money to buy drugs or alcohol.
So, what is the right thing to do in this situation?
While there isn’t a universal “yes” or “no” answer to this question, it can be a good, kind gesture to give money to someone in need under certain circumstances.
From a practical standpoint, there are some necessary things people experiencing homelessness simply can’t get with food stamps, or SNAP benefits (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) if you’re here in Nashville.
Specifically, these resources can’t be used to purchase essential hygiene products like soap, toothpaste, toothbrushes, toilet paper, or feminine products. SNAP can’t be used to buy hot food or food that is going to be eaten in-store, like in a restaurant. This isn’t an ideal situation for someone who doesn’t have a way to store packaged or perishable food.
But even more important than the money you may desire to give is the human interaction that comes with it. A person who is homeless often feels invisible or overlooked by society.
If you decide to give a person some money, don’t just drop a couple of bills in a bucket and walk away. The simple act of looking someone in the eye, saying hello, and handing them a gift can go a long way beyond the gift itself. In making that connection, you’re letting them know you see them as a person of value and worth. Treating someone with dignity can be a more powerful gift than anything money can buy.
Myth #2: Homeless People Don’t Want To Get A Job
Unfortunately, there are many misconceptions around homelessness and employment, which can influence how people treat them.
Let’s start with the most obvious problem: someone who is experiencing homelessness doesn’t have a home address.
Every job application has a line for a home address. Leaving it blank will likely raise all kinds of questions from potential employers. While it would be nice to think each person has the same opportunity for a job, the reality is if someone doesn’t have a permanent address, many employers will not hire them.
The lack of a home address also raises several other questions in the mind of some employers.
How will this person get to work? Will they be presentable? Will they be reliable?
Many employers would prefer to avoid asking these questions and hire someone else.
Believe it or not, homelessness can also inadvertently give you a criminal record. Since a person without a home has nowhere else to go, they may spend their days walking and wandering. In many cases, they may find themselves in places where they are not wanted. This often leads to a charge of criminal trespassing. When that happens, the person is arrested, charged, and eventually released. But in the process, the arrest goes on their record.
Many employers will not hire someone with a criminal record, regardless of the circumstances of the charge.
Finally, did you know that many men and women experiencing homelessness do have jobs?
Thankfully, some employers are willing to give a person struggling with homelessness a second chance. But you may be shocked to learn that being homeless can also be expensive. The lack of a permanent address means no place to store things like food, work clothes, toiletries, etc. This leads a person to purchase one-off or single-use versions of items, which is costly and makes it difficult for them to save for a first month’s rent or other fees associated with getting a place.
Myth #3: Homeless People Are Just Lazy
For those of us who are fortunate enough to have always had a roof over our head, the idea of becoming homeless can be hard to understand. Everyone goes through hard times, but how does someone let it get to that point? Most people will assume there is some kind of addiction involved, and while that is true in some cases, the truth is there are a lot of different circumstances that lead to someone sleeping on the street.
According to the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty, the three main causes of homelessness are lack of affordable housing, unemployment, and poverty. It doesn’t take a law expert to see that those three things are extremely closely linked.
Unemployment is the biggest, most obvious of these issues. Most Americans don’t have months of expenses saved away and when someone loses their job (like in a pandemic) it doesn’t take long to go through the money they do have. Even if someone doesn’t lose their job, a new continual expense, such as a medical issue, can create a situation where they simply aren’t making enough money to meet their basic needs. This is why untreated mental health problems are a huge problem within the homeless community.
Of course, this just touches on the many reasons people become homeless. Everyone’s story is different. Some people run away from abusive homes, others fall into depression after a trauma, and yes, some people succumb to addiction. But taking the time to understand how someone came to be in the situation they are in helps us see them as human and not just another homeless person sleeping on the street.
Myth #4: Most Homeless People Are Junkies
To be direct, no, they are not. The word “most” implies that the majority of people experiencing homelessness have some kind of substance abuse problem, which statistically is not the case. Having said that, it would be dishonest to say it’s not a problem.
It shouldn’t be a surprise that the homeless community’s substance abuse rate is significantly higher than the general population.
Specifically, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration found that 35 percent of people experiencing homelessness suffer from some type of substance abuse or addiction. This includes both alcohol and drugs besides tobacco.
In some cases, this addiction is part of the reason the person became homeless in the first place. Substance abuse is often accompanied by depression and other mental health issues, not to mention the financial drain that comes with addiction.
In other cases, a person may not become addicted to a substance until after they become homeless. In this case, it’s typically being used as a coping mechanism when their lives are falling apart, which eventually leads to addiction.
Regardless of how or why someone develops an addiction, it’s a proven fact that helping someone get clean and sober has a dramatic effect on their physical health and their ability to reclaim a healthy life.
This is why there are so many programs focused on rehabilitating those battling homelessness—it is essential to getting them back on their feet. The Life Recovery Program at Nashville Rescue Mission is a free program to help those battling addiction get their life back on track.
Stereotypes and myths are harmful because they can dehumanize entire communities. If we believe that all of God’s children have value and worth, we must challenge myths and stereotypes that remove dignity and write off people that Jesus would have called the least of these. You can help the Mission debunk myths about the homeless by sharing the above with your loved ones. Knowledge is power!
“Speak up for the people who have no voice, for the rights of all the down-and-outers. Speak out for justice! Stand up for the poor and destitute!” ~Proverbs 31: 8- 9